A generic suspenser that doesn't taste bad at first bite but becomes increasingly hard to swallow, "The Saint" comes off more as a pallid imitation of Paramount's Eurothriller "Mission: Impossible" than as anything resembling the further adventures of Leslie Charteris' charming rogue.

A generic suspenser that doesn’t taste bad at first bite but becomes increasingly hard to swallow, “The Saint” comes off more as a pallid imitation of Paramount’s Eurothriller “Mission: Impossible” than as anything resembling the further adventures of Leslie Charteris’ charming rogue. Given that contempo audience awareness of the character is minimal at best, this doesn’t much matter, but long-in-the-works, $70 million production offers only mild diversion before sinking in a murk of preposterous plotting. B.O. prospects internationally look OK with mainstream action audiences, but chances of recoupment, or evolution of this into a hoped-for series, are slim to none.

Charteris’ debonair mystery man, the subject of more than 50 novels beginning in 1928, figured in a series of films, mostly starring George Sanders, in the late ’30s and early ’40s, but came into his own on the screen only in the popular British TV series of the ’60s starring Roger Moore.

That the original author’s name appears nowhere on the new film serves as a good indication of how important the source material has been to the present filmmakers — who have, nonetheless, seen fit to begin the picture with a prologue inventing a background for Simon Templar, complete with explanation as to how he got his name.

Five-minute intro establishes the boy as an orphan bastard at a Catholic school in the Far East. With the priest mercilessly asking him, “Who are you? What is your name?” the good-looking kid comes up with an answer based on characters from biblical antiquity and masterminds a mass escape that results in the death of his young sweetheart.

In the latest twist on a dissolve, little Simon’s distressed face morphs into that of his adult self (Val Kilmer), who, in Moscow and dressed like a high-tech cat burglar, breaks into a safe to steal a microchip important to Ivan Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija, star of “Before the Rain”).

Latter is a blowhard nationalist, a former communist and now Mafia-style billionaire who is planning to manipulate a heating-oil crisis in the frigid capital as a way to seize power.

A master of disguise, Templar gets away to England, where he is induced by the admiring Tretiak to pull off a formidable job: nabbing a rumored breakthrough formula for cold fusion developed by U.S. scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue). Delivering cheap energy to his country would make Tretiak a hero in the short term, and bring unimaginable wealth in the long term.

Agreeing to a price that will bring his holdings in a Swiss bank account to $50 million, his threshold for retirement, Templar takes the job, cases his victim’s Oxford flat for clues as to her personal tastes, assumes the disguise of a weirdly romantic hippie explorer from Africa named Thomas More (another saint, like all of his aliases), and has little trouble seducing the smart but vulnerable “genius.”

Although Templar goes through with his job, computer-faxing Russell’s formulations to Moscow, he has unaccustomed qualms, muttering to himself, “She’s an angel” as he eludes the lethal intentions of Tretiak’s wayward son, Ilya (Valery Nikolaev), and slips back to Moscow.

Amusingly disguised as Tretiak himself, Templar confronts the man in a nightclub to secure his undelivered money, but is then himself confronted by the angry but emotionally stirred Russell, who unwittingly repeats the priest’s question, “Who are you?,” only to be told, “No one has a clue, least of all me.”

Up to this midway point, it looks as though screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh (“The Rock”) and Wesley Strick (“Cape Fear”) are striving to replace the suave, charming, very British Saint with a stateless soul who compensates for his profound identity crisis by assuming an endless succession of disguises.

Kilmer, willing to be charming this time out, unlike in his recent “The Ghost and the Darkness” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” has good fun with some of these, notably as a fey, waspish German espionage contact and a nerdy scientist.

But the second hour descends into routine cat-and-mouse stuff as the Russian baddies chase the breathless couple all over Moscow, and then into a ridiculously contrived dramatic maze. If it was far-fetched for Tretiak to offer big bucks for what was only an alleged formula, it is ludicrous when he brings pressure to bear to make cold fusion work on a 12-hour deadline after decades of frustrating failure, then laughable when the strongman pins his hope for a coup on a public demonstration of cold fusion (or lack of same) at a rally in a jammed Red Square.

Kilmer’s Saint is mostly a cipher, albeit with his disarming moments. Shue may be a vision, but she is not a vision of the person one readily believes has solved the daunting challenge of cold fusion. Stuck with a sketchily conceived character who’s part brain, part emotional softy with a heart condition and part action heroine, the appealing actress can’t put a convincing spin on the good doctor.

Serbedzija comes off like a low-grade James Bond villain, but Nikolaev, soon to be seen in Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn,” conveys an intriguing, Roman Polanki-ish sense of jaunty menace as the cane-wielding son. Irina Apeximova makes a tart impression as an enterprising young woman who guides Templar and Russell through the sewers of Moscow.

Director Phillip Noyce, who keeps things moving at a bracing clip, and lenser Phil Meheux take extensive advantage of the scenic Moscow locations to inject the picture with plenty of scope and local color. Production values are top-drawer, notably Paul Engelen’s clever makeup creations for Kilmer and Graeme Revell’s flavorsome score, which lightly incorporates Edwin Astley’s trademark theme from the TV show in the late going.

Just as James Bond was given a new BMW in “Goldeneye,” Simon Templar (a Volvo driver from way back) is briefly seen driving the forthcoming Volvo C-70 sport coupe, but nothing is made of it (except in a current series of TV ads).

Pic is dedicated to casting director Elisabeth Leustig, who was killed when she was hit by a car in Moscow while doing preliminary work on the picture in December 1995.

The Saint

Production

A Paramount release presented in association with Rysher Entertainment of a David Brown and Robert Evans production. Produced by Brown, Evans, William J. Macdonald, Mace Neufeld. Executive producers, Paul Hitchcock, Robert S. Baker. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Screenplay, Jonathan Hensleigh, Wesley Strick, story by Hensleigh.

Crew

Camera (Rank Film Labs color, Deluxe prints; Panavision widescreen), Phil Meheux; additional camera, Alex Thompson; editor, Terry Rawlings; music, Graeme Revell; production design, Joseph Nemec III; supervising art direction, Alan Cassie, Leslie W. Tomkins; art direction, Lucy Richardson, Nick Palmer; set decoration, Peter Young; costume design, Marlene Stewart; sound (DTS/Dolby digital), Ivan Sharrock; visual effects supervisor, Robert Grasmere; supervising makeup artist, Paul Engelen; stunt coordinator, Greg Powell; associate producer, Lis Kern; assistant directors, Mark Egerton (U.K.), Chris Newman (Russia); second unit directors, Grasmere, Michael A. Benson (U.K.), Egerton (Russia); second unit camera, Tony Spratling (U.K.), Benson (Russia); casting, Patsy Pollock, Elisabeth Leustig. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., March 27, 1997. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 min.

With

Simon Templar - Val Kilmer Dr. Emma Russell - Elisabeth Shue Ivan Tretiak - Rade Serbedzija Ilya Tretiak - Valery Nikolaev Dr. Lev Botvin - Henry Goodman Chief Inspector Teal - Alun Armstrong Tretiak's Aide, Vereshagin - Michael Byrne President Karpov - Evgeny Lazarev Frankie - Irina Apeximova General Sklarov - Lev Prigunov Inspector Rabineau - Charlotte Cornwell Woman on Plane - Emily Mortimer Russian Prostitute - Lucija Serbedzija Young Simon Templar - Adam Smith Catholic Priest - Pat Laffan Agnes - Verity Dearsley

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